A New Chicago Museum Displaying Replicas of Traditional Native American Architecture

ARCH 572 | Spring 2014
Associate Professor Joy Malnar 


When the 1909 Plan of Chicago “presented a grand blueprint of transportation for the entire region” the Native American trails served as the roots of its arrangement. These trails can still be seen in the modern maps of the Chicago region although the presence of Native Americans in Chicago has been almost entirely erased. Few people know that Chicago has one of the largest urban American Indian populations in the country. This was due to a 1952 urbanization of American Indians policy enacted by the United States government that moved thousands of American Indians from rural areas and reservations to Chicago.

Course Description: The task is to design a new museum that supports two traditions; that of Chicago known for its innovative architecture while presenting the knowledge of the original inhabitants of this land. The new museum will house replicas of Native American architecture representing the commonly accepted nine cultural regions of North America. The studio will approach Native American architecture as the foundational component of critical regionalism. This will require you to research and study Native American architecture to extract the knowledge imbedded within it.  The design challenge is to bring back the presence of, and celebrate Native Americans’ diverse and unique identity, and their knowledge of the climatic regions, but not by engaging in stereotypes or icon specific images. The evaluation of your building design will be based on how successfully it supports the forwarding looking approach of Native Americans, and its ability to re-establish tribal connections to the land by assisting people to perceive and appreciate seasonal changes, and attracting tourists.

Native American buildings embody a rich traditional knowledge of a local region. This historic information is valuable, yet regretfully neglected. Your rigorous inquiry will include information on the use of local materials, building processes, social organization, and cultural identity. The raw materials are both raw and organic. The structural types are bent frame, post and beam, and compression, and the building forms are domical, conical, and rectilinear. As you select nine buildings for exhibit, what should be revealed is how the original inhabitants’ understanding of the land and climatic zones drove construction techniques that provided structures that demonstrated passive sustainable strategies. This information will become a part of the exhibit display. Your new museum must meet the expectations of today’s audiences while giving the Native American architecture a place amongst the acknowledged masterpieces of Chicago.

Site: The building will become a part of the existing Chicago’s Museum Campus, and take advantage of the prairie grasses of Northerly Island. Research of the site will require a review of the new plans proposed by JJR Landscape Architects with Studio Gang Architects and the City of Chicago Cultural Plan 2012. One physical site model will be built as a team project.

Field Trips: The studio will require one or two field trips to Chicago to visit the site and the Field Museum of Natural History. Within the museum we will focus on the Bunky Echo-Hawk: Modern Warrior exhibit, and the Native American collection that includes a full-size replica of a Pawnee Earth Lodge. Currently there are questions being asked about the appropriateness of exhibits such as these being located within a natural history museum.


New Architecture on Indigenous Lands by Joy Monice Malnar and Frank Vodvarka (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) paperback.

Native American Architecture by Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989) paperback.

Site Chicago’s Museum Campus & Northerly Island


“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.” – Native American Proverb

“Remember “that a noble logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting with growing intensity.” – Daniel Burnham, 1909 Chicago Plan